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When it got to the point that Ishida was sent to the hospital and Karin had to save his ass, he knew it was time to get out.

Ichigo had thought the worst thing that could happen would be to lose his soul reaper power and have to watch as his friends put themselves at risk to protect Karakura. Less than a month after he watched Rukia fade away to nothing, standing right in front of him, he realized it could be a lot worse.

He, himself, could be hollow bait. And those he sought to protect would risk themselves, get hurt, maybe die, to save his clueless self.

When his beloved little sister, face set in a scowl eerily like his own, swooped in and battled something he couldn’t see that was as tall as a building that had been an inch from eating him, it had nearly given him a heart attack. He’d done the only thing he could, put his back to a wall with room in front of him to fight, calling Urahara frantically on the phone. By the time his ex-sensei got there, the hollow was dead, Karin was bleeding but grinning, and Ichigo was lost.

The interaction between Urahara and his sister made it plain the man had a new student. Part of Ichigo, the part that couldn’t back up his threats any more, wanted to rip the man in half for putting her in danger. Another part was thankful she’d had that training or they’d both be dead. And a tiny part wanted to cut his own throat for being the reason she’d had to fight the fucking hollow in the first place.

He waited until he got home before he had his panic attack.

~

Dinner that night was very quiet. Yuzu stared at everyone with big, sad eyes, resigned to her new normal, where her big brother turned into a shadow, her twin sister swung between pride and grief, and her father watched everything with very old eyes. Would things ever get better?

Just when it seemed things were okay, something weird happened that no one would tell her about, then Ichi-nii started to space out and give those horrible fake smiles whenever he caught her looking at him. He also spent a lot of his time in his bedroom, and she didn’t think it was to do anything fun. Even when Orihime-chan came over. Or Chad-kun. She wasn’t picky. She just wanted him to be happier.

She’d given up on truly happy. Less like a walking dead person would be good.

As for Karin, her twin thought she was keeping secrets. Ha. Everyone thought they kept secrets from oblivious Yuzu, but she was a lot more observant than anyone realized. Karin was fighting, seriously fighting the way Ichi-nii used to and now didn’t. So Ichi-nii was hurt, and Karin took his place, and Daddy was resigned to it, and Yuzu hated it.

All of it.

Starting with the silence.

She was just opening her mouth to break it when, to her shock, Ichi-nii did.

~

“I have to go away,” Ichigo said, staring down at his curry like it was fascinating. Or, more likely, to avoid looking at all the people he loved and disappointed so badly.

“Not on my account,” Karin barked, glaring at him.

“Don’t be ridiculous, son,” Isshin began, when Yuzu, of all people, interrupted him.

“Why?” she asked seriously.

The unexpected calm in her question made all three of them look at her. She ignored her sister and father to stare back at her brother, holding his gaze with the weight of her own. He found himself telling the truth before he could find a way to make it sound better.

“I put all of you in danger by being here.”

His dad started to ridicule him and Karin protested loudly until Yuzu slammed her wooden spoon on the table, shocking them both into silence.

“The monsters?” She still sounded so calm.

Ichigo was trying not to hyperventilate. She knew about hollows? “Can you see them?” His voice was strangled.

“Not clearly,” she replied, like they were talking about stray dogs, not soul-eating abominations. “But I know you fought them. A few times now Daddy has fought them. Karin’s fighting them more and more.”

Her twin made a sound like a cat with a hairball, staring at Yuzu with a shocked expression on her face. Yuzu rolled her eyes.

“Please. I’m not stupid.” She turned back to Ichigo. “I don’t want you to go. I’ll miss you. We’ll all miss you. But you’ll leave anyway, because you always do what you have to do to keep us safe. Right?”

Ichigo nodded dumbly. Had she always been this insightful?

“Where will you go? You still have two years of school left before you’re an adult. You need to finish your education.”

Isshin whimpered something under his breath that sounded like “masaki!” while staring at his daughter. Karin’s eyes were still popped-out, staring at her. Ichigo felt like he hadn’t blinked since the conversation started.

“Um?” he said, intelligently, eyes darting over to his dad in the futile hope that for once the old man would come through for him. He nearly fell off the chair when Isshin cleared his throat and set down his chopsticks.

“I have an old friend I can talk to. He’s the chairman of the school board at a good high school in Tokyo.”

He narrowed his eyes at Ichigo, who found himself straightening unconsciously. For once, the old goat looked like the Shinigami Captain he’d once been. Or he was channeling Yamamoto.

“You’re very intelligent, even if other things in your life have taken priority for the last several months.”

Yeah, other things. Like hollows. Trying to stay alive. And saving the world. Ichigo nodded but kept his mouth shut, wondering where his dad was going with this.

“Ouran High is an expensive prep school, and you’ll have to pass some tough placement exams to get in. I have no doubt you can do it if you set your mind to it.”

That sounded less like a compliment and more like a command. Ichigo nodded.

“Tokyo has a very dense atmosphere from all the living humans packed into it, and your energy is no longer the beacon it once was, so it will be a good place to disappear.”

He almost flinched at the clinical tone Isshin used when he spoke of Ichigo’s sacrificed powers, but he focused on the words, instead.

“This high school is a day school, so I’ll have to set you up in an apartment, similar to what Ishida has done for Uryū. I know you’re a responsible boy, but you will have to stay out of trouble. No fighting, unless it’s to protect yourself. If idiots say stupid things about your hair, you let it slide, you got it? You can’t afford to screw this up.”

“I won’t.” He couldn’t. It wasn’t just his future riding on this, because really? He’d stopped thinking about his future when Rukia stabbed him in the gut with her Zanpakutō. Too busy trying to keep his shit together and everybody alive after that. It was the safety of those he’d sworn to protect that really mattered.

He had to make this work, because if it didn’t, then he would be putting them all back at risk, and that wasn’t about to happen.

Karin was grumbling into her dinner about doing her part, and Ichigo smiled sadly at her. Yuzu made a choked sound a lot like the one Karin had made before, then got up from the table, walked around it, and hugged him. He kissed the top of her head.

“You’ll be fine, Ichi-nii,” she whispered against his chest. “And so will we.”

He was kind enough not to mention that she was getting his shirt wet with her tears.

Late that night, he gave up on math homework and stared blankly out the window, watching the sky. Wondering what was out there, prowling around, that he couldn’t see. Hoping his sister wasn’t putting herself in danger. Wishing he could be out there with Uryū and Chad, Zanpakutō in hand, fighting to protect his town.

Then a silly striped hat and a fan, bracketing serious grey eyes, popped up in his vision.

Ichigo jumped away from the shopkeeper now perched on his window sill and clutched his chest. “Shit, geta-boshi, are you trying to give me a heart attack?”

“Ah, Ichigo-kun, you should stay more aware of your surroundings!” Urahara sounded merry, but his eyes were watchful.

“Like that’ll do me any good,” he spat bitterly, “when I can’t see a damned thing.”

The fan fluttered. “You can see me!”

Ichigo perched on his bed and stared at him. “And WHY am I seeing you?”

“Because I’m in my gigai.”

“Don’t be an ass. Why are you here?” Interrupting his sky-gazing and brooding about the massive changes about to take place in his life. Or just trying not to think, really.

“You’re spacing out a lot, Ichi-kun. That’s bad.”

A knife came out of nowhere and headed for his neck. Ichigo reacted instinctively and a moment later he had Urahara pinned to the floor, the knife lying on the rug by the closet. The smirk he got told him Urahara had let him win. He huffed and got up, stomping back over to his bed and flopping down to sit on it. Urahara rolled to a sitting position and stared up at him.

“You’re doing the right thing, Ichigo,” he said gently.

“Then why does it just make me feel even emptier?” He already felt like his soul was extinguished, with the silence where Zangetsu and the Hollow had been. Now, he had to leave his family, his little sisters, and all his friends behind.

Though really, they had left him behind, going off to the fight he could no longer see. Or maybe he’d left them behind first, when he’d gone off to Soul Society. First Tatsuki, then Chad, then to a lesser extent Orihime and finally Uryū… maybe this was karma.

A sharp smack to his knee pulled him out of his thoughts. “Ouch!”

“While you brood most attractively, Ichigo-kun, it’s not productive at the moment.”

Ichigo goggled at him, a little creeped out by the thought that Urahara, who was centuries old, could find his distraction attractive. Urahara grinned evilly.

“Please put your fan back over your face,” Ichigo begged.

That knocked the grin off and got him a scowl, cheering him up a bit.

“So, why are you here? Is it Karin?” He was suddenly worried.

Urahara sighed. “Your pint-sized Amazonian sister is sound asleep in her bed. No. I’m here with a small update. Hollow activity in Karakura has slowed a great deal since Aizen was defeated…”

“They’re still coming after me,” Ichigo pointed out. “That’s why I have to leave.”

“You do seem to be the locus of the hollow incursions,” he agreed. “It is due to your inner hollow, now, not your immense spiritual pressure.”

“But he’s gone!” His homicidal mania, his taunts, his surprise attacks… he wasn’t missed. Zangetsu, though. He was missed.

“You can no longer hear it,” Urahara contradicted him. “But you are a unique hybrid of human, Shinigami, and hollow. These are all genetic factors in your breeding. You could no more lose your hollow aspects than you could spontaneously change your hair color.”

Ichigo felt his breath catch in his chest. “Does that mean my powers could come back?” The hope was actually painful.

The fan came back up, and the fragile hope burst. Urahara hid like that when he didn’t want to say what he had to say.

“You have the potential for your power to re-form, but honestly, it was drained to the point where your ability to keep and use it essentially ruptured. It would take longer for your power to come back than the years you have left as a living being.”

Squeezing his eyes shut, Ichigo fought for his composure. When he opened them again, he made sure not to look into Urahara’s sympathetic eyes.

“So what’s the stupid hollow doing now, even when he’s mostly dead?”

“He’s a food source. You still appeal to the hollows’ hunger. This will not change. Removing yourself to a densely-populated area will mask the traces of hollow energy you still emit. This will protect you.”

“And everyone here, by not being hollow bait.”

Urahara nodded slowly. Ichigo turned and stared blindly out at the sky again. Urahara sighed.

“All this brooding isn’t good for you, Ichigo-kun. Consider getting a hobby.”

Then he was a flash of white and green out the window and away.

~

It was mid-February, and Ichigo planned to start his new school in his second year, in April. That barely gave them time to get everything organized, and they wouldn’t have made it without Isshin calling in some favors.

Ichigo spent those weeks practically in solitude. He kept inside, feeling trapped, but determined to hide his ‘tasty’ soul behind his dad’s gradually increasing spiritual presence, and even Karin’s developing power. When he was at school, he stuck by Chad and Uryū, feeling like a fucking coward, but wanting to stay by competent fighters and not risk any other innocents.

He didn’t say much. His friends watched him like they expected him to fall apart or explode, but he ignored that. He hadn’t told them he was leaving, yet, and didn’t know how or if he would, but he soaked up their presence as long as he was able.

He also studied like a fiend. He’d looked up this Ouran High, and it was a school for rich kids. He knew his dad didn’t have that much money, so he figured he’d be going under the cover of a scholarship winner. Since they only accepted one scholarship per year, he had to make it believable. Hence, studying so long his eyes felt like they were burning out and his brain felt over-stuffed.

Finally, he took Urahara’s advice. When he was a kid, before his mom died, she’d been teaching him to play the violin. He’d had a knack for it, but after losing her he’d put it away, because every time he picked up the bow he was reminded of her, and how she wasn’t there anymore. How it was his fault. Exactly how she had died. Trying to play then was an invitation to a flashback.

But time and life experience had helped… he was a traumatized war veteran now, not a traumatized innocent nine year old. When he unpacked the violin, polished and tuned it, restrung the bow, and gently drew it across the strings, she was there. With him. Beside him. Smiling at him with every note.

Between cramming for exams and hiding from hollows, playing the violin soon became the one thing that kept him sane.

~

Tokyo was insane, but he’d been there a few times before, so it wasn’t a complete shock. Ouran High School? That was a whole different world.

The grounds were laid out in grand old buildings, built in what Ichigo vaguely recognized as the French Chateauesque style – he’d done a lot of studying of nearly everything in the past couple months – surrounded by neat green lawns filled with white stone walking paths, kind of rude fountains, and ruthlessly trimmed hedges. Coming by train from the bustle of Tokyo to the very quiet campus felt like stepping into an alternate reality.

His dad hadn’t come, by his own request. All the arrangements had been made, by phone and letter, and it was up to Ichigo now. He took a fortifying breath, controlled his face into the least threatening scowl he could manage… he’d been practicing… and went up the stairs.

It was a Sunday, and nobody was there except the test proctor. The woman stared haughtily at him, and Ichigo forced himself not to glare back. He would get used to it. He had to.

He would be an outsider here. A charity case, as far as the other students knew, here because he was a brainiac. It would isolate him.

That was actually okay with him. People tended to get hurt around him.

Deliberately clearing his mind, he took a seat, accepted the sheaf of exam papers, and did his damnedest to blow that entrance exam out of the water.

It wasn’t until he was back on the train to Karakura that he let himself relax. The tests hadn’t been nearly as hard as he’d expected. Maybe the Chairman had made them simple to help him get in? He thought back to his dad’s expectant face that morning, and shook his head.

Nah. He didn’t think the tests were rigged. All the cramming just paid off.

He felt a little better about his future prospects by the time he got home.

Of course, he then woke up in the middle of the night, freaked out from a dream where he’d flunked the tests, hadn’t been admitted, had been forced to stay in Karakura, then Grimmjow found him but he couldn’t see him, and the bastard killed everybody.

Yeah. He had to get out of there. Soon.

~

The next week was insanely hectic. He’d gotten his test results in two days – apparently it was a rush – and was relieved to see that he would be getting the scholarship position on his own merits. His father’s favor-calling had gotten him the chance, but he was the one who earned it.

That helped, a little, when he joined his friends up on the school roof for lunch, something he’d been avoiding since the beginning of term. The only conversation they’d been having was Orihime babbling something about rocket ships, so the silence that fell when he walked up to them wasn’t ridiculously obvious.

He nodded, trying for a smile but quickly going for a neutral face when Tatsuki and Uryū grimaced. Keigo blurted out a garbled, “where the heck you been?” and Chad edged over to give him room to sit down. He took a deep breath.

“I got a scholarship to a prep school in Tokyo, and I’ll be starting there in April. I’m going to miss you.”

That got an immediate, shocked silence. Big eyes stared back at him from everyone, even Chad, though he could only see the one eye due to the hair hanging in his face. He sighed.

Keigo immediately began protesting at the top of his lungs, tears starting up in his eyes. Mizuiro stared at him, eyes solemn, as he gave a little hum. But the others – the ones who knew the truth – they just looked away, or nodded. Orihime started to cry, and Tatsuki rubbed her back, scowling fiercely. Chad shifted closer and nudged his shoulder. Uryū looked constipated, but not surprised.

None of them were surprised.

The rest of the lunch period passed quietly, once Tatsuki bonked Keigo on the head to shut him up. Ichigo soaked up the friendship surrounding him, and silently said goodbye.

~

The morning he left for Ouran High, he had a hard time getting out the door. Karin, oddly enough, was the one who wouldn’t let go of him. Yuzu had fed him breakfast then hugged him for a long time, but she eventually stepped back. His dad was oddly quiet, no melodramatic sobbing to his Mom’s picture, just hanging out in the background, waiting for him. But Karin?

“You don’t have to go! Let me protect you this time!” she growled into his neck. She was hugging him hard enough to leave bruises.

He bit back his own tears, telling himself that it wasn’t forever. He could visit Karakura, he just couldn’t stay, or the hollows would swarm again. The twins could come to Tokyo. It was okay. It would all be fine.

Yeah. He was lying to himself. It wasn’t like he was dying or anything, but his life was changing irrevocably. Just as it had a year ago when Rukia busted in on his life, only this time, he was walking away from all the anchors that he’d protected so strongly before… before Aizen. Before giving everything he had inside… now he was giving up everything else.

He shook his head, forcing himself to be strong and positive, or he’d never get Karin to let him go.

Then his dad was there, helping for once, and together they pried the unusually strong arms off him. Ichigo leaned forward and kissed Karin’s forehead.

“Take care of Yuzu, yeah?” he asked quietly.

Karin bit her lip, dashed tears out of her eyes, and nodded once. He gave her a sad smile, then moved to kiss Yuzu on the forehead as well.

“You guys have to come visit me when you get the chance, okay?”

Yuzu gave him a wobbly, wet-eyed smile. “Every chance we find, Ichi-nii!”

“C’mon, son, you don’t want to miss the train.”

Well, yes, he did, but no, he couldn’t. He picked up his backpack, his violin case, and his jacket and, with a smile over his shoulder to try to reassure his little sisters, headed out the door. The rest of his stuff was already at the tiny apartment they’d rented last weekend, after the test results were in – it was leased in Isshin’s name, just as Ryūken had leased one for Uryū. It was in walking distance of the high school, and had everything Ichigo would need, even if it did feel like a closet with a kitchenette.

His dad didn’t say anything when they got to the station, but for the first time in years, he gave Ichigo a hug. Ichigo was a little embarrassed to admit he clung a little. Then he forced himself back, gave his dad a serious look and a nod, and turned to board the train.

Thank god for his iPod. He turned it up, stared blankly out the window, and watched the world blur by. A few hours later he stepped off the bus a few blocks from his apartment and walked up the stairs to stare at the door with the little 8 on it.

This was his new life.

~

This was his new life?!?

He stared at the cliques of snotty rich kids edging around him like he had the plague, and sighed. The boys were wearing the same blue coat with the school crest, dark tie and dark slacks that he was, but they looked like they were born wearing them, while he felt like he was cosplaying. The girls were wearing yellow dresses with red strings around their necks. They looked like clones.

For a moment, he was intensely homesick for Tatsuki.

The classes hadn’t been bad. Well, the work was actually easy. Since he’d kick-started his brain with exam-cramming, he’d remembered how much he actually liked to learn, when he wasn’t being dragged into fights over his hair or chased by hollows or constantly interrupted by Rukia and Renji and Tōshirō and… damnit.

Anyway, the classwork was fine. He was in no danger of losing his scholarship. The problem was the people.

Everybody stared and tittered like a bunch of idiot pigeons about his hair and his inexpensive backpack and his cheap school supplies. It wasn’t just his imagination, either, as they didn’t even try to be subtle about dissing him.

At least nobody tried to fight him.

Maybe they were scared of him.

That thought made him grin, and a passing middle schooler squeaked and ran away. He rolled his eyes.

He had to get out of this madhouse mess. He hefted his book bag over one shoulder, clenched his fingers around the handle on his violin case, and set off exploring. Anywhere away from the idiots and the whispers. Anywhere quiet.

Picking a staircase at random, he ended up on the third floor and wandered down the hallway. At the very end, he saw a sign that made his eyes light up.

A music room.

Perfect.

He could play his violin without stupid people saying stupid things. Maybe he could use it for a study room, too.

As he reached for the door, a short brunette with thick glasses yelped quietly and stepped back.

“Sorry,” he said automatically, “were you going in here?”

The shaggy brown head shook frantically, and the boy… girl?... who could tell? He/she/it ran back down the staircase.

(… exit Haruhi, enter Ichigo…)

He sighed again and turned back to the door, turning the handle and pulling it toward him.

Was that… did he just see rose petals? He sniffed experimentally.

Nah. Must have been his imagination. He poked his head in and didn’t see anyone. Perfect!

It was a big room, mostly empty, with a few small tables and a velvet couch. The drapes were pulled back and he could see the central courtyard from the window. It looked so serene. So quiet.

No hollows.

No idiot rich kids.

He was unaware of the gentle smile on his face as he put down his books, took out his violin, and began to play. Soon he was deeply into the music, his eyes half-closed, as he walked toward the window. Staring out over the grounds, he settled himself in place, and relaxed for the first time since he’d entered Ouran High.

~

Tamaki had stars in his eyes. Such a beautiful sound! So heartbreaking! So finely-wrought, and so soulfully sweet!

It didn’t hurt that the one doing the playing was gorgeous. Tamaki had a clear view of his reflection in the window. He had hair the color of fire, a true red-head, and eyes like melted chocolate, and a smile so gentle he could see imaginary woodland creatures flocking to encircle him. His hands were long-fingered and slightly scarred, holding the bow with a delicacy and strength unexpected from a fighter – and he had to be a fighter, with those knuckles.

His shoulders were broad, narrowing down to perfect hips, and his legs were even longer than Tamaki’s own. He moved with an unconscious grace that gave Tamaki a delicious shiver. He was also alone, carrying an air of solitude and grief about him that he wore like a second skin. He looked lonely. Tamaki smiled.

He’d found a new host.

“Hey, boss,” Hikaru chimed up quietly behind him, “who’s the kid with the fiddle?”

“And what’s he doing in our room?” Kaoru continued.

“That’s our new host,” Tamaki breathed.

Twin redheaded menaces stared at him from either side. Then they grinned. He managed to catch their arms before they flung themselves out to pester the new boy and disturbed that glorious music.

“Wait ‘til the music stops, please,” he told them, and to his wonder, they actually listened.

They stayed quiet for another twenty minutes or so, before the new boy finished playing. When he opened the case to put the violin back inside, glancing at his watch, the twins bounded out to surround him.

In a move so fast none of them could actually track it, he had both boys on the floor, a restraining hand on the back of each neck. His smile was gone, and a ferocious frown had taken its place.

“Ow?” Hikaru asked more than cried.

”Um?” Kaoru added.

“They’re harmless,” Kyōya stated from the doorway, drawing everyone’s attention. He peered at the tableau over his book, tapping it lightly with his pen. “So you may abort your assault on your classmates and let them up.”

The beautiful stranger blushed, and Tamaki was enchanted. He took his hands away from the twins’ necks and began to withdraw.

Oh, that would not do!

“Hello!” he sang, presenting himself before the new host who didn’t yet know he was the new host. “Welcome to the Ouran High School Host Club!”

Darkened amber eyes widened at him, and the firm jaw sagged a little. It was a good look on him.

“You’re going to love it here!”

~

Ichigo felt like he’d been ambushed by sparkly aliens.

Identical twin boys about a year younger than him had come at him in a pincer attack, and he’d automatically taken them down. He had enough control over his instincts not to hurt them, but they were certainly shocked. Before he could let them up, a guy who looked like a taller version of Uryū with shorter hair, who used his glasses like a shield just like his Quincy friend, called him on it. Then a tall blond with purple eyes… honestly purple, and he didn’t think they were colored contacts… came dancing out and practically sang at him.

He was pretty sure he’d gone to school when he woke up that morning. How had he ended up in a musical?

Then the blond was RIGHT THERE in his face, and god, he smelled faintly like roses. Was he French, maybe?

He was still trying to figure that out when the twins came up on either side of him again, this time safely out of reach.

Then a tall guy came through the door, with a short blond kid in front of him hauling a stuffed rabbit, of all things, and Ichigo was pretty sure he’d tripped somehow and landed in an alternate universe.

Peering over at the Uryū-clone, who seemed to be the only sane one in the room, he asked, “Is this a private room?” The sign said Music Room, but if they were using it, he could find somewhere else.

“No,” the tall sparkly blond waved a hand in front of his face, “this is the home of the Host Club! Welcome! We don’t usually get male clientele, but we’re open to everyone! It’s unusual to find someone so open about his sexuality, but you are a musician, with that stunning hair color, so I’m sure-“

Ichigo figured out somewhere in the stream of words that blondie was hitting on him, so he did what he usually did when somebody invaded his space to do something he didn’t want them to do – Keigo, Kenpachi, his dad, and Grimmjow all came to mind – and punched him.

Gently, because he looked like he could break.

Still, it was enough to send him on his ass. Ichigo looked at him in shock, then looked at his own fist like it wasn’t attached to the end of his arm, then looked at the blond, now surrounded by all the others, glaring at him like he’d committed murder.

“Damnit,” he sighed.

“Wh’d’d’dat?” the blond whimpered at him, tears coming to his eyes.

Ichigo moved to lean next to him and five bodies appeared in his way. Oddly, the tiny blond with the stuffed rabbit gave off the strongest killer-vibe. He sighed again.

“Sorry, really. I just didn’t expect you to hit on me, and I just reacted. I pulled the punch, though, so you should be okay? Let me look at it. My dad’s a doctor and I’ve helped him a lot.” To his own shock, he found himself babbling.

Sparkly let go of his nose and looked up at him with huge, teary purple eyes. God. That puppy-dog look should be outlawed. He winced. Then he took the handkerchief the Uryū-clone held out and gently wiped the tears from Sparkly’s face. The nose was barely bruised, and hadn’t even bled.

“You’re gonna be okay,” he said softly.

Purple eyes glowed at him. Maybe they were aliens. Did normal humans have eyes that luminous?

“I’ve gotta be going,” he mumbled out, absently crumpling the damp handkerchief and stuffing it in his pocket. With that, he snatched up his bag and his violin and beat a strategic and very hasty retreat.

~

“Hit on him?” Tamaki mumbled, confused.

The twins grinned. “He thought you thought he was gay and you wanted him!” they called in unison.

“But why?”

Hani patted him gently on the knee. “You practically called him gay when you said only girls came here. Then you kind of insulted his hair and told him it was okay because he was a musician.” He plopped his rabbit on Tamaki’s lap. “Hug Usa-chan. That will make it all better.”

Tamaki automatically cuddled the plushie and stared around with tragic eyes. “Such a misunderstanding!”

“not so sure about that,” Kaoru muttered.

“he did look predatory,” Hikaru agreed, staring at Tamaki.

“Hm,” Mori agreed.

“He must join us! He’ll be the perfect Rough Type Host!”

Oh, god, they all thought in unison.

~

Kyōya stared at the door swinging shut after the strange, violent boy flew out it. He moved so fast he was practically a blur. His eyebrow slowly rose, then he heard a watery sigh.

Turning back to his best friend, he nearly sighed himself. He’d seen that look in Tamaki’s eyes before. Intent. Focused. Determined.

Shiny.

He’d first seen it the day the other boy had been introduced to him, had proclaimed himself his best friend, and glomped onto him, exclaiming in French.

Then he’d seen it again on the first day he’d approached the Hitachiin twins at the fountain in the courtyard. That had been dimmed by his pain when they played their usual game, but it had only deepened as he pursued them, eventually beating them at their own game and gaining their loyalty.

Finally, he’d seen it when he watched Tamaki watching Hani, sitting alone but for Mori, and determined that they, also, were too much alone, and needed to be part of the family.

It seemed Tamaki had found another stray. This one, unlike all the others, was feral. He would bite.

Kyōya would make sure those teeth were pulled.

By the end of the school day, he had compiled a solid profile of one Ichigo Kurosaki. Father a doctor, mother killed when he was young, two younger sisters. The boy was a troublemaker, constantly in fights, with multiple unexcused absences, yet at the same time, relatively highly ranked in his class. His entrance examination for the scholarship he’d been awarded to Ouran was the last given, almost two months after the competitive period had ended, at the behest of one Dr. Isshin Kurosaki, a personal friend of Chairman Suō. The tests were standardized, so he gained no advantage there, but he did score the second highest on his composite total in the history of the scholarship testing. So he was an intelligent troublemaker. Reading between the lines, he came to the conclusion that Kurosaki had gotten into some kind of trouble at Karakura High, and been sent to Ouran both to get him away from bad influences and to give him a new start toward a better future.

Striking the son of the Chairman wasn’t the best beginning.

Tamaki had been shocked but not hurt, and then charmed when Kurosaki cleaned his face for him. Kyōya did release a sigh, then. Once his best friend made up his mind, nothing, not his counsel, not peer pressure, not even the sincere wishes of his victims, would slow him down.

When he shared his findings with Tamaki, mainly to try to reason with him about adding Kurosaki to the family, Tamaki went very quiet.

“His mother was killed?”

Kyōya cleared his throat. “Yes. He witnessed it, according to police reports.”

Tamaki flinched.

“He ran with a gang of thugs… okay, not really thugs, but misfits. They got into fights. Often.” Given his own experience with Kurosaki’s fist, maybe that would give him pause.

“Poor boy, no mother, having to watch over his little sisters, defending himself the only way he knew how…”

Or not. Kyōya grimaced. Tamaki could spin anything into a romantic tale.

“Wandering, trying to find himself, starting over all alone in a new place, hoping to find a place to belong… Oh, yes! He’s the Rōnin Type! Perfect. We don’t have one of those!”

The courtship of Ichigo Kurosaki commenced.

~

The first month was insane, and it didn’t seem to get any better. He prayed for the weekend, if only to get some peace.

Sparkly, who was named Tomahawk or something, turned out to be the son of the Chairman of the school… a fact his dad made perfectly clear to him with a kick to the head at five am Saturday morning.

Why did the man have a key to his place, again?

Oh, right. The lease was in his name.

So, Isshin made it perfectly plain to him – with painful punctuation – that he would be exceedingly polite to one Tommy-whatever Suō and every single one of his friends, or his dad would ship him to Australia.

He shuddered. Tokyo was far enough from home. And alien enough, too. He didn’t need to add deserts and kangaroos. Though koalas were pretty cute.

He shuddered again. Did Australia have a desert? He felt so confused.

Tommy-whatever was contagious!

Then there were the twins. Not his twins. His sisters had come up with his dad over the weekend, and as wonderful as it had been to eat Yuzu’s cooking and listen to Karin lying about not hunting hollows, the homesickness nearly killed him Sunday night when they left again. No, it was the other twins.

They kept popping up all over the place. Even though they were in the grade below him, it seemed everywhere he went that wasn’t a class, they were there. In the cafeteria – and once he saw those prices, he started packing his own bentos. On the quad. In the hallways. In the fucking toilet, for god’s sake.

He watched them in turn. They had a cruel streak, especially Kaoru. And a temper, especially Hikaru. They also liked to pretend to be one another to confuse people. Ichigo was glad the girls were fraternal twins and hadn’t had the chance to do stuff like that, although it wouldn’t have mattered. Personalities were more important than looks, and shone through, so even with them being identical, he had no trouble telling them apart.

The first time Kaoru tried to tell him he was Hikaru and Ichigo said he wasn’t, Kaoru walked into a pillar.

It was pretty funny, as the kid hadn’t been hurt, and Hikaru was immediately there, wrapped around him, examining him like he’d broken his skull on the concrete when all he had was a little tiny red mark on his forehead. A bunch of girls came out of nowhere and sighed at them, and Ichigo was convinced he’d seen sparkles in the air.

Bizarre.

The next morning, Hikaru had come up to him pretending to be Kaoru. Ichigo frowned at him. Hikaru blanched a little, but then got pissy, and got in his face. Ichigo sighed.

“You’re not Kaoru. You’re Hikaru. Obviously.”

“Obviously?” Hikaru sputtered, echoed from somewhere behind another pillar by Kaoru’s “How is it obvious?”

Ichigo moderated his frown, not wanting to scare him, but gave him a flat look. “You’re Hikaru.” He pointed at the pillar the other twin was sliding out from behind. “He’s Kaoru. I have to go to class. Goodbye.”

They followed him all the way to the door, and peered in at him in wonder until the bell rang. He hoped they got detention.

Not that they were his only stalkers. Tamokin-something… he only remembered the twins’ names because they kept lying about them to him… Sparkly kept pouncing on him.

Given his training, his instincts, and what was probably a latent case of PTSD, it was a wonder he didn’t put the guy through the wall more than once. But he’d promised his dad, Sparkly was actually harmless, and the Uryū-clone was always watching.

Always.

And writing, in that damned ledger.

So he endured the pouncing and tried his best to avoid notice.

Not that he was able to, really. Apparently having the Chairman’s son – and leader of a Host Club that was immensely popular with the girls – randomly glomping him in extreme affection made the snobs decide he wasn’t carrying the plague after all. More people stared at him. Talked about him.

It was fucking irritating.

Still, he told himself, he was at Ouran High to protect his sisters and friends, and to graduate. Everything else was just a distraction.

Until the little blond with the bunny plushie and his tall bodyguard ambushed him one day and dragged him back to Music Room 3. The only reason he didn’t escape was because the blond was staring up at him with huge brown eyes that looked JUST like Yuzu’s and he couldn’t deny him anything.

Damnit.

As the door opened, he could swear he saw rose petals again.

He really needed to get that checked out. Hallucinations were a bad thing.

~

Tamaki decided he’d waited long enough. The others were doing a good job of keeping an eye on Ichigo-kun – or Ichi-chan, as Hani had begun to call him – but he was avoiding the Club.

That would not do.

He’d tried being friendly, charming, and approachable, to the point of practically jumping the boy, until Kyōya reminded him that Ichigo thought Tamaki was romantically interested in him, and might be frightened off by what he could construe as advances.

Which made Tamaki think.

Was he interested in Ichigo? That way?

Hmmm.

Tempting, but no. When the time came for him to allow himself to fall into romance, it would be with a lovely princess he had not yet met. Or maybe with Kyōya.

He just wanted to lighten some of that pain in Ichigo’s sad brown eyes.

Also, he wanted to hear him play the violin again. Maybe play a duet with him! Oh, yes, that would be wonderful. Perhaps the Debussy violin sonata? Or maybe Beethoven’s Spring Sonata? Or perhaps something by Koichi Kishi, for something both modern and Japanese?

Humming happily to himself, he floated away to English Literature class, where he would stare at Ichigo’s profile, fiery head, fine bone structure and all, and dream about music.

It’s just a good thing Kyōya took such excellent notes.

It was his sincere pleasure to find, that afternoon after classes, that Hani-chan had Taken Initiative. Yes. With capitals.

He beamed at the ruffled Ichigo carted into the room by Mori and led by Hani.

~

This time, at least, he comported himself with some grace. And restraint.

Meaning he didn’t punch Tamaki, knock over the twins, or run away as soon as he could escape.

Kyōya hid a smirk behind his ledger as a bemused Kurosaki sat silently on an antique French Provincial settee, blinking at the girls bracketing him, with more girls sitting across from him. He had good instincts, anyway, as he automatically offered them tea and blinked some more when they sighed and giggled at him.

Honestly, it was hilarious.

He didn’t seem to even notice that he’d become one of the Hosts. Kyōya wondered how long that would last. For a very intelligent boy, he was utterly oblivious.

~

Life settled into a pattern for Ichigo. It was a pretty weird pattern, but it was okay.

Somehow, after Honey-with-rabbit brought him back to the music room, he ended up serving tea to a bunch of girls. It was okay. They were nice enough. They weren’t tough and funny, like Tatsuki, or loud and violent, like Rukia. They weren’t as whiny or, honestly, as clingy as Orihime. If anything, they reminded him a lot of Yuzu. He found himself reacting like a good big brother, making sure they had cake and that their tea was hot.

For some reason he couldn’t quite understand, the next day, he came back on his own.

This time, some of the girls started sighing less and talking more. He mentioned his sisters, and they pried a little out of him… that Yuzu was a great cook, that Karin was really talented at football. He answered honestly when they asked him questions, but he always turned it back around on them, in part because he was private by nature, and in part because he was honestly interested.

They might be snooty rich girls, but underneath the giggling and the sea of yellow fabric, they were just girls.

He found himself going back often. It wasn’t like he had anything to go ‘home’ to in his tiny apartment, and besides, while the other guys were setting up strange, fantastical settings and putting on costumes, he could practice his violin. They seemed to like it.

Then they did some kind of Arabian Nights theme. They ambushed him, again, damnit. Mori and the twins pinned him, Hani LOOKED at him, and Tamaki – he finally got the name right – and Kyōya – the Uryū-clone – made him wear a costume.

Well, Tamaki gushed at him, and Kyōya tapped his pen on his ledger, and Hani was still LOOKING at him, and what the hell.

He ended up in purple trousers, with an open vest and a thin scarf wrapped around his forehead. They put some kind of blue stone necklace around his neck, and a stretchy arm band at the top of his bicep that looked kind of like a tattoo when it was in place, plus a couple bangles on his wrist. He looked down at his bare chest and sighed.

“Really?” he quietly whined.

“Perfect!” Tamaki declared.

“Very cute!” Hani added.

The twins didn’t say anything, though Kaoru was giving him an evil grin and Hikaru looked like he was about to crack up. How could anyone not tell those two apart?

Mori didn’t say anything, but he looked sympathetic. Which was more than he could say for Kyōya, who just smirked at him.

So much like Uryū.

He had so not missed that.

Ichigo sighed, flopped in a handy corner of a sofa where he couldn’t get pinned by girls, and finally let himself enjoy the afternoon. The guys were crazy, but they were all right.

And nobody was trying to kill anybody, so that was a bonus.

~

By the time the New Year’s holiday came around, Ichigo felt like he’d finally settled in. He’d come to a truce of sorts with Kyōya, and while he still reminded Ichigo painfully of Uryū, he found he liked the quiet around him. Mori had taken him to the kendo dojo, and for the first time he finally learned to use the sword as something other than a blunt instrument… he had to, now that he had no spiritual energy to push through it.

He still didn’t understand what made Tamaki’s eyes go all sparkly as he watched Mori spar with him. By the time they finished, he and Mori were pleasantly exhausted, and Tamaki was happily talking to himself. Something about Ichigo being the “Rōnin Type!” but by then he’d learned not to ask.

Hani helped ease the ache in his heart from missing his sisters all the time and, as it turned out, was incredibly kick-ass in karate. He’d give a fortune he didn’t have to see him and Tatsuki fight. The twins had finally accepted that he actually could tell them apart and wasn’t just a good guesser. Tamaki had calmed down a fraction, and Ichigo could enjoy his energy without fearing for his virtue.

Not sure Kyōya’s was safe, but that was his problem.

It wasn’t his sisters, or his nakama in Karakura, or the friends he’d made in Soul Society… but it was real, it was his life, and for once, he was happy.

~

Welcome to the Ouran High School Host Club, Ichigo Kurosaki!

end